Fuels for a post-apocalyptic world | Fuel Tips

By Staff Writer
Dec 5, 2022 | Fuel Tips | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Steve Harvey/Unsplash

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It’s the end of the world as we know it. No birthday party. No cheesecake. No jellybean. The big question: How on earth are you going to power your post-apocalyptic death machine?


As the past hundred years have shown, gasoline makes a fine fuel for cars. “Gasoline’s energy density is pretty high,” notes Zachary J. Santner, technical specialist with Sunoco Race Fuel. In very simple terms, this means that gasoline provides a lot of energy relative to its mass. It’s why a tank of gas will take the average car a few hundred miles. 

But gasoline might not be perfect for wandering the Wasteland. Under ideal conditions, its shelf life is somewhat limited–one to two years, max, for peak performance. Gasoline is also rather tricky to refine, especially with limited resources, Santner continues, noting that the same is true for kerosene and Jet A-1 fuel. 


“It is currently blended with more biomass than gasoline,” Santner notes. Diesel substitutes can also be relatively easily brewed from biomatter. This could be a strong contender. 


It can be sourced from many kinds of fermentation, but home-distilling alcohol past 95% isn’t easy. “You could surely burn a 95% ethanol/5% water mixture,” Santner says, “but water does cause issues with corrosion and fuel systems.”

Propane, Methane and Other Liquified Petroleums

The short answer, Santner says, is that these all have less energy density than gasoline. A possible refueling source, however, could involve capturing methane released from decomposing organic matter, including that found in landfills. (For a related idea, revisit Bartertown from the third “Mad Max” film.)


Heating certain materials in the absence of oxygen–plastics or organics like coal–releases flammable gases that can then be burned for fuel. The Lane Motor Museum’s collection includes a 1938 Citroën converted to run on methane gas derived from heated coal. It can travel about 30 miles on a load of coal. 


Another option, assuming you can power your generator and also schlep around batteries. 

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Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
1/27/21 10:12 a.m.

I've always considered what my ride would be for the "after times," but I guess I never considered what I would put in it to keep it running.

lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter)
lotusseven7 (Forum Supporter) HalfDork
1/27/21 10:21 a.m.

That picture reminds me of one of the old abandoned gas stations from the movie The Last Chase. It's one that most have probably never seen. It stars Lee Majors and a Porsche 917-10 "clone". Cheesy movie from back in 1981. Go look it up all you car guys......

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 10:33 a.m.
Colin Wood said:

I've always considered what my ride would be for the "after times," but I guess I never considered what I would put in it to keep it running.

See, exactly. Sure, you have already planned out your DeathMobile, but how will you keep it running? Can't outrun the mutants if you're outta gas. 

ChrisTropea Associate Editor
1/27/21 10:50 a.m.

What about a wood powered engine? 


Gearheadotaku (Forum Supporter)
Gearheadotaku (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
1/27/21 10:55 a.m.

3 choices.

1. Find a producing oil well and build a refinery there. (Don't know how, but there must be a low tech way to do this. You probably won't get 100 octane race gas though)

2. Start disilling alcohol, hope you have a good field of grain and sugar cane.

3. Take over a hydroelectric dam. Lots of power for an electric car. Put additional batteries on a trailer for more range.


tomtomgt356 (FS)
tomtomgt356 (FS) GRM+ Memberand Reader
1/27/21 11:04 a.m.

Steam power! As long as you have water, you can run on anything that burns!

RevRico GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
1/27/21 11:16 a.m.

Alcohol still or electric. Batteries are easy enough to come by that short of another ice age finding supplies would be easy, solar farms and wind farms can be taken over or even moved to better locations. Anything that grows can be convinced to ferment with fire, water, and time. 

I'd be trying for electric personally, less moving parts to deal with means less drastic means of repair and replacement.

MadScientistMatt UltimaDork
1/27/21 11:18 a.m.

Bicycles tend to get oddly overlooked in postapocalyptic movies and literature, but they seem like they'd be very useful when fuel is hard to come by.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/27/21 1:16 p.m.

In reply to MadScientistMatt :

I was thinking that or a horse. 

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
1/27/21 1:18 p.m.

Look at what our Amish neighbors do, and copy that. I see lots of horses, walking, little scooters. If things get really desperate methanol and ethanol aren't THAT hard to make. Probably worth printing the how-to and keeping it in your safe.

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